Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry, who leaves office Dec. 31, sat down with Herald-Leader reporter Beverly Fortune last week to talk about the past four years and what he sees ahead for the city and himself.
Question: What are the major challenges facing the city and the new administration in the next four years?
Answer: Clearly, the biggest challenge will be the revenue shortfalls generated by the national recession. The decline in revenues in the last three years and the slow growth will create an environment that will be very challenging to prepare a budget and operate within a budget. That's probably the overriding issue for the moment.
But there are also some longer-term issues that will confront Urban County Government pretty quickly. One is putting in place the finances to make sure we maintain our infrastructure — our streets, roads, bridges — to make sure there are not massive problems in the future. We did not do that with our sewers, and we are paying the price.
And finally, balancing growth with preservation of farmland will also be an issue. Obviously, we haven't seen as much pressure to grow as a result of the economy but, when the economy bounces back, there will once again be the tension between trying to preserve the farmland that makes Lexington unique, and growth.
Q: What would you say are your major accomplishments over the past four years?
A: Creation of the higher-education triangle resulting from the relocation of Eastern State Hospital to Coldstream, and Bluegrass Technical College to the Eastern State campus is probably going to be the event with the longest-term impact on the community.
With Bluegrass, the University of Kentucky and Transylvania forming a higher-ed triangle around our downtown business community, we will have a wonderful opportunity to provide a diverse array of educational opportunities for our citizens. And at the same time, have an opportunity for our institutions of higher education to interface with our business community in such a way that we should be able to create many, many jobs in the years to come.
Also, I think creation of the department of environmental quality will have long-term benefits for the community. We now have a group of people whose direct responsibility it is to maintain and improve the quality of our environment.
That should help us improve our water quality. That should help us deal more effectively with our waste. I'm confident it will help us recycle far more than we have in the past. And I hope it will make Urban County Government more energy-efficient than it is today.
And I'd like to think Lexington has been a better neighbor and partner with surrounding communities and counties. I have tried a variety of ways to reach out to our neighbors ... . As a result, I hope we can work on a number of transportation, economic-development and growth issues more cooperatively.
Q: What about the revitalization of downtown? It is a much different place than four years ago. Many projects had been on the drawing board for years, and you came in like a closer and got them accomplished. I'd think you'd feel good about those.
A: I sure do. And it was a very conscious effort. The changes we made were not haphazard but were made as a result of a lot of thought.
We wanted to create the kind of environment, down here especially, that was attractive to a broad spectrum of our citizens, but especially to young professionals that are the lifeblood of our economy.
The South Limestone project is part of that. It helps to bring the University of Kentucky campus a little closer to downtown, at least psychologically. And it makes it easier for pedestrians, cars and bicyclists to get from campus to downtown, and that is a very positive thing.
Q: On the flip side, is there anything you are disappointed in not seeing come to fruition?
A: There aren't very many things. We got the vast majority of things we hoped to accomplish done.
There was one thing I thought we really could have used to our advantage to set us apart that did not happen — to create financial incentives for students in high school to pursue careers in science, technology and math. I think that would really have put Lexington on the map for encouraging kids to pursue careers in those areas.
Q: Looking back to the campaign, there are people who think one thing that did not play in your favor was the timing of the rate increase by the water company. With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you could have done to lessen the impact of that 37 percent rate increase?
A: I think that was a critical factor in the campaign. I'm not sure there was anything I could have done. Kentucky American doesn't listen to me. If I could have persuaded them not to impose the fee, I would have, but they've never listened to what I've had to say, so I'm not sure there's anything I could have done.
Q: Some people thought the administration was slow to respond to the scandal at the airport. Would you have handled that situation differently today?
A: In one respect. I would have said what I thought was obvious, which is the conduct of the people at the airport was outrageous. Anybody that's spending money in the fashion they were, making incredibly bad decisions.
That was pretty obvious to me. I was confident the board was going to solve the issue, and they obviously did. Perhaps if I had said directly, their conduct was outrageous, it might have served me better. I knew that. I thought anybody who looked at the set of facts would come to that conclusion on their own without my being explicit about it, but apparently a lot of people felt because I did not say something I was not concerned about it, which was ridiculous. That is one thing I probably would have done differently.
Q: Another issue that became controversial was CentrePointe. You said it was private land, a private developer and not your place to intervene. Looking back, is there anything you would have done to alter that design or the project planned for that block?
A: Absolutely not. It's not my obligation to impose my personal taste on development plans that are brought to Urban County Government. Were I to do so, that would be outrageous. The reason we have laws is that there is a set of laws that apply equally to everybody. Now if the rules are bad, let's talk about how we ought to change them.
There's been a move afoot to have design guidelines. Two and one-half years later, we still don't have them. My belief in 2008 was, we can't come to a conclusion in this community about architectural style.
And therefore it is going to be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to impose design guidelines throughout the downtown area. I'll be interested to see what the ultimate result of that exercise is.
Q: What is your assessment of the city today as compared to four years ago when you became mayor?
A: Just from a physical point of view, the city looks better, cleaner. It has a vastly improved downtown. We made a number of infrastructure improvements, street and road improvements. We have a more efficient Urban County Government with 250 fewer employees than we had four years ago.
It's hard for taxpayers to see the operating efficiencies here, but we are utilizing our technology more effectively. When you look around and you see improvements like the Legacy Trail, Oliver Lewis Way, Fifth Third Pavilion, Cheapside Park, the Lyric Theatre, improvements in the East End, the William Wells Brown Community Center, it's a pretty healthy list of improvements.
Q: What comes next for you?
A: I will take some time to think about that. I would love to have the opportunity to teach and write for a while. I enjoyed practicing law. There may be some business opportunities. But I want to take time to think about that and make a decision that makes sense for my family.